Governor Chris Christie’s image as a cost-cutter may have started cracking the moment he boarded a state police helicopter to get to his son’s high-school baseball game, leaving New Jersey with a $2,500 bill.
Christie, 48, joined the line-up of past governors whose personal use of state aircraft led to public outcry -- and in one case, an apology and reimbursement for the costs.
“It’s time to get rid of the helicopter,” said Michael Riccards, executive director of the Hall Institute of Public Policy, a Trenton-based nonpartisan group. “They all get into trouble with it.”
Christie took office in January 2010 pledging to bring fiscal restraint to a state with the fourth-highest public-debt burden in the U.S., $3,940 per capita, according to a report from Moody’s Investors Service. For fiscal 2012, which starts in July, he has urged “shared sacrifice” under a $29.4 billion spending plan that Democrats say skimps on education and health.
The helicopter ride and a trooper-driven arrival at the ballfield with his wife, Mary Pat, before two varsity teams, fans and family, drew attention to the Republican’s use of such gubernatorial perks. Neither the game nor a later meeting he flew to were state business, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch.
“He has been asking everyone else in the state to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and share in the sacrifice of all these budget cuts to education and so forth,” Murray said by telephone. “There were so many pieces to this that should have screamed out, ‘Don’t do it!’ It makes the governor seem that he’s tone deaf.”
‘Trappings of Office’
Christie, who traveled from downtown Trenton to the game, won’t repay the cost of the flight, said Michael Drewniak, his spokesman.
“The governor does not reimburse for security and travel,” Drewniak said in an e-mail. “The use of air travel has been extremely limited and appropriate.
Using the aircraft shows Christie “in some way has embraced the trappings of office,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the Washington-based Cook Political Report. Given his reputation for political acumen and discipline, the excursion was surprising, she said in a telephone interview.
“It’s contrary to the image he’s created as an average guy,” Duffy said. “Many parents may like to helicopter to their kids’ game, but they can’t.”
Christie flew from the May 31 game to Princeton for an evening meeting at the governor’s mansion with party donors and operatives from Iowa, where the presidential nominating process begins next year. The governor told his visitors that he won’t be a candidate in 2012, according to Rick Gorka, a New Jersey Republican State Committee spokesman.
Charging that school labor leaders behave like “political thugs,” Christie has drawn fire from the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union. It is running a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign critical of his effort to cut their pay and benefits. The governor’s disapproval rating rose to a high last month in a voter survey.
Christie in the past year has limited annual property-tax increases to 2 percent and capped superintendents’ pay. He wants government workers to pay 30 percent of their health-care costs by 2014, rather than the national average of 17 percent cited by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department’s Healthcare Research and Quality Agency.
The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled May 23 that the state must restore $500 million in budget cuts affecting the state’s poorest school districts. Christie hasn’t said where the money may be found. An error in its application caused the state to miss out on $400 million in federal school aid in 2010.
Christie, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey before his election as governor, won corruption cases against more than 100 public officials. On Nov. 8, a U.S. Justice Department report said that a U.S. attorney, later identified as Christie, routinely exceeded travel allowances in 2007 and 2008.
The state helicopter, which Christie has ridden 33 times, cost about $2,500 for the hour of May 31 flight time, State Police Sergeant Stephen Jones said by telephone. Christie boarded the newly purchased Agusta aircraft in Trenton and landed in Montvale for the game between his son’s Delbarton School and Saint Joseph High School. He then flew about 67 miles (108 kilometers) south to the governor’s official residence in Princeton for the meeting regarding Iowa.
The executive protection unit “provides secure, protected travel by vehicle in the overwhelming majority of the governor’s business and personal travel, except in those rare instances when the governor’s schedule warrants use of air travel,” State Police Superintendent Rick Fuentes said in a statement yesterday.
There is no additional cost to taxpayers of having Christie aboard state police helicopters because they fly daily for homeland security missions or training, Fuentes said.
In 2002, the Democratic State Committee reimbursed New Jersey $18,200 for 14 non-governmental helicopter trips taken by then-Governor James E. McGreevey, who apologized. In 1993, Republican Christine Todd Whitman, campaigning against Democratic Governor Jim Florio, cited his use of state aircraft as wasteful. Whitman, who won, said she would stop governors’ use of helicopters, then flew in one for state business.
Many parents can understand the desire to see a child’s team play, yet will balk at using a state helicopter to do so, said David Redlawsk, director of the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll for Rutgers University, a state school in New Brunswick.
“I don’t think by itself this could make or break his governorship, but it does put a chink in his armor,” Redlawsk said in a telephone interview. “Rightly or wrongly, we don’t want our leaders to be like that. We want them to suffer the same things we do.”
Redlawsk, who came to Rutgers from the University of Iowa, said the flight to a political meeting will cause people to question its necessity. A group of Hawkeye State Republican supporters sought the meeting to persuade Christie to enter the race despite the governor’s statements that he won’t.
Christie’s flight could figure in his political future, according to the Cook Report’s Duffy.
“If he runs for national office, this will come back,” she said.
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